• April 16, 2014

Are You My Mentor?

Writing Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

During a long woodsy walk with a friend, she mentioned a junior colleague whose tenure-track career she's worried about. The colleague ("Jane") had not yet published anything but was doing great work teaching, and had volunteered to serve on committees at every level of the university—making an impact on the campus, but not on readers outside of its walls. My friend wanted to help usher Jane along the tenure trail, and asked me for suggestions.

Which is kind of funny, because it wasn't all that long ago that I was hectoring this very friend about her own lack of publishing. I had done everything I could think of to help: I had set up writing dates with her, asked about the status of her manuscripts, stopped asking, offered incentives, read her drafts, went for long walks to let her talk through her ideas. Finally, she wrote just enough to get tenure and is now in a position to try to help clear the path for those who are following her.

As we walked, I asked, How about a writing group made up of supportive department members? But my friend had already tried that; Jane just ended up upset each time they looked at one of her drafts. She understood their advice about what needed to be done, but she didn't think she could do it. With two little kids, a ton of service work, and an unholy course load, the thing she always let slide was the one she found the hardest to do: trying to publish.

Thinking out loud, more mindful of rocks and roots than of my friend's feelings, I offered that maybe Jane wasn't cut out for the job. Faculty gigs at four-year colleges and universities have three parts: teaching, service, and research. We're all expected to do each of them. While the proportions may vary, the publishing requirement is what separates us from high-school teachers and community-college professors (many of whom publish even though they are not required to). If you "just want to teach," there are places for that.

But if you can't do the research and writing, do you really belong at a university? Do you deserve tenure there?

Each institution gets to make that decision on each tenure case. At my own university, teaching and service loads are high, and research expectations and standards are relatively low. I'm not sure that is a bad thing given our demographics and mission. We have a high percentage not only of first-generation college students, but also of first-generation faculty members. We may not be churning out pathbreaking scholarship, but we are trying to create an informed citizenry.

Professors who are dedicated to teaching and making the environment better for students, who take seriously shared governance and student success, may well be as or more important than those who crank out yet another article on autumnal leaves in Paradise Lost or the depth of dinosaur footprints in sandstone. Why should everyone be expected to publish?

And then I come back to: Because that's an essential part of our job.

Maybe the reason Jane wasn't publishing was because she just wasn't a scholar. Maybe she'd been an excellent student, and as long as someone else was doling out assignments and expectations, she'd been able to thrive. But now, laboring under the need to generate her own questions, and with nothing more than her own intellectual stamina, she was foundering. There was no reason to believe that after receiving tenure she would start to produce groundbreaking articles and books. Perhaps helping her along on the tenure process was a step toward creating deadwood.

Then I stopped myself. If I followed that line of thought, I worried that it might create a situation in which the only people who could become tenured were those without children, or those without rich and varied lives. Possibly a proportion of them would not be great at teaching and service.

So for me, the question changed from "Who is cut out for the job?" to "How, once we hire someone, can we help that person succeed?" The latter seems to be an area in which many universities are failing.

Is it up to the friends of assistant professors to worry about them and try to find ways to help? Many who struggled to get tenure don't want to look back on that horrendous time and, in fact, often "forget" how hard it was for them; they take the opportunity to "remind" those who follow about standards they themselves failed to clear with a comfortable margin.

The best advice I could come up with for Jane was: "Don't have a life." One of my colleagues advises graduate students to "marry the right person"—presumably someone who won't mind if you privilege your work over all else. Or maybe the path to professorial success is to feel so invested in being a scholar that the idea of not publishing is unthinkable. I don't know how to foster any of those things in another person.

I've visited the teaching and learning centers at the University of Virginia, Macalester College, and Furman University. Each has a smart, creative, and knowledgeable staff devoted to trying to help faculty members. The centers offer resources like books, writing workshops, and support groups. They bring in speakers and pony up grants. These places take the challenges of faculty work seriously. But I've also heard professors at all ranks say they can't find the time to take advantage of the available aid, or that it doesn't quite fit what they need.

Recently, I've started to feel that way myself.

I earned tenure last year, and yet find myself badly in need of a mentor. While I didn't get or need a ton of help on my way up the tenure-and-promotion ladder, now I feel a bit lost. Where can I find someone who will help me think through not just my next book project, but also the trajectory of my career? Who will help me look at the ways I'm choosing to spend my professional time and nudge me in the directions that will yield the best long-term results, rather than just watch me react to each thing as it comes in?

My wonderful former literary agent (who left the business to run a publishing company—the nerve!) would urge me to think beyond an individual project and ask how it would help me get to the next stage. That question used to drive me nuts, especially since answering it often meant I realized I shouldn't do what I thought I wanted to do. By responding to things as they come up, my career and my life have taken fascinating twists. You never know when you'll get invited to run a 100-mile race in the Himalayas, give a talk in New Orleans, or be asked to write a personal essay about Title IX. These surprises keep me alert to possibility and much good has come of them.

But merely reacting is not a career strategy. You (or maybe it's just me) can end up frittering away your time. So instead of feeling secure in my tenured status, I feel a lack of direction. I'm worried about the quality of my work: How do I push myself to be better? More ambitious? What should my next big goal be? Lately it seems I've been stuck more than I've been moving forward. I know this predicament is something only I can figure out, but boy would it be great to have someone to bounce it off and to ask me the hard questions.

From my years as a book editor, I'm useful at helping others with this stuff and happy to do so. But I want and need someone to help me, too. So much of educationese centers on "student success." You can't argue with that. But I wonder if we need to realize that in order to help students, we have to invest in faculty success as well.

Go online for three minutes and you can find someone to clean your house, shrink your head, or accompany you on long romantic walks on the beach. You can find people who will meet to run with you at exactly your pace. But where do you find a mentor? Where do you find someone who understands your particular niche in the academic world and has the kind of specific expertise you value? Someone who does what you do—but better—and is willing to invest the time in you? 

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University's writing program in Spokane. Her Web site is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.

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